The latest escalation in the deteriorating diplomatic relations between the US and Russia was unveiled this morning, when the US embassy in Russia announced it was scaling back its visa services in Russia after Moscow ordered it to sharply cut its diplomatic staff in retaliation over new U.S. sanctions, and would suspend all non-immigrant visa operations in Russia starting August 23, although visa operations will be resumed on September 1, but only in the main embassy building in Moscow.
US embassy in Moscow
As disclosed in the US embassy statement, "as a result of the Russian government’s personnel cap imposed on the U.S. Mission, all nonimmigrant visa (NIV) operations across Russia will be suspended beginning August 23, 2017. Visa operations will resume on a greatly reduced scale. Beginning September 1, nonimmigrant visa interviews will be conducted only at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.... As of 0900 Moscow time Monday, August 21, the U.S. Mission will begin canceling current nonimmigrant visa appointments countrywide.
The greatly reduced US mission in Russia also said that "the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and three consulates will continue to provide emergency and routine services to American citizens, although hours may change."
"Capacity for interviews in the future will be greatly reduced because we have had to greatly reduce our staffing levels to comply with the Russian government’s requirement," the embassy told applicants in a note on its web site.
While previously Russian citizens could apply for tourist visas in local US consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, today's announcement ends this practice, forcing applicants to go to the Russian capital: "NIV interviews at the U.S. Consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok are suspended until further notice... The staffing changes will also affect the scheduling of some immigrant visa applicants. Affected applicants will be contacted if there is a change as to the time and date of their interview."
The move, which will further sour already battered U.S.-Russia relations, means Russian citizens wanting to visit the United States for tourism will no longer be able to apply via U.S. consulates outside Moscow and will have to travel to the Russian capital instead.
The action comes on the heels of Moscow’s order to cut the American diplomatic corps by 755 people and bring it to the numbers equivalent to Russian diplomatic staff in the US, which is 455 people. To meet the deadline of the Russia’s order, which expires on September 1, the US diplomatic mission has already begun “planning for departures and staff reductions.”
The US embassy in Moscow also condemned Moscow’s decision on the diplomatic staff reduction, saying that it casts doubt on the will to improve the bilateral relations. “Russia’s decision to reduce the United States’ diplomatic presence here calls into question Russia’s seriousness about pursuing better relations,” the embassy statement said.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said earlier this month that the United States had issued around 150,000 visas to Russian citizens last year. The U.S. embassy signaled its new scaled back visa regime could be in place for some time. "We will operate at reduced capacity for as long as our staffing levels are reduced," it said.
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Shortly after the announcement, A Russian senator quoted by RIA news agency said that Russia will respond in kind to U.S. visa changes: "New U.S. visa rules for Russians are a demarche", RIA Novosti reported, citing member of Federation Council Andrey Klimov.
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the US decision to scale back visa services in Russia was an attempt to stir up ill-feeling among ordinary Russians against the authorities. Lavrov, speaking at a joint news conference in Moscow with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, said that "the American authors of these decisions have come up with another attempt to stir up discontent among Russian citizens about the actions of the Russian authorities. It's a well known logic ... and this it the logic of those who organize color revolutions," Lavrov told reporters.
Lavrov, who said the decision suggested Washington didn't think its reduced diplomatic staff could adapt to new circumstances, said Russia would carefully study the U.S. decision and promised that Moscow would not take out its anger on ordinary U.S. citizens.